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Behav Brain Sci. 2004 Aug;27(4):443-58; discussion 459-90.

The signal functions of early infant crying.

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  • 1Unit of Developmental Neuroethology, Laboratory of Comparative Ethology, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, Poolesville, MD 20837, USA.


In this article I evaluate recent attempts to illuminate the human infant cry from an evolutionary perspective. Infants are born into an uncertain parenting environment, which can range from indulgent care of offspring to infanticide. Infant cries are in large part adaptations that maintain proximity to and elicit care from caregivers. Although there is not strong evidence for acoustically distinct cry types, infant cries may function as a graded signal. During pain-induced autonomic nervous system arousal, for example, neural input to the vocal cords increases cry pitch. Caregivers may use this acoustic information, together with other cues, to guide caregiving behavior. Serious pathology, on the other hand, results in chronically and severely abnormal cry acoustics. Such abnormal crying may be a proximate cause of adaptive infant maltreatment, in circumstances in which parents cut their losses and reduce or withdraw investment from infants with low survival chances. An increase in the amount of crying during the first few months of life is a human universal, and excessive crying, or colic, represents the upper end of this normal increase. Potential signal functions of excessive crying include manipulation of parents to acquire additional resources, honest signaling of need, and honest signaling of vigor. Current evidence does not strongly support any one of these hypotheses, but the evidence is most consistent with the hypothesis that excessive early infant crying is a signal of vigor that evolved to reduce the risk of a reduction or withdrawal of parental care.

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